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Government Shutdown? 'This Is Democracy In Action'


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. After decades of litigation, checks are going out this week to thousands of black farmers who - lawmakers eventually agreed - faced discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We'll speak with one of the people who helped lead the fight for years, even though he will not personally benefit. That's in just a few minutes.

But, yes, if you were wondering, the Department of Education is - sorry - the Department of Agriculture is still largely shut down today like much of the rest of the federal government. Throughout the week, we've been hearing about how the shutdown has affected federal workers, their families, a lot of people who do business with or use government services, including tourists who'd like to visit national parks but cannot. Today, though, we wanted to talk more about why we are here. You will have heard the finger-pointing by now about who is most at fault, but at the core of it is a disagreement over the Affordable Care Act - Obamacare, to detractors.

Republicans in the House of Representatives are insisting that they will not advance a bill to fund the government unless the health insurance program is delayed, defunded or stripped-down. We wanted to take a closer look at that conservative argument and ask why the Affordable Care Act is such an important issue and why this is the strategy to stop it. One group that's been leading the call to end the Affordable Care Act is the conservative Heritage Foundation based here in Washington, D.C. So we're joined now by Chris Jacobs. He's a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. He's with us from their offices in Washington. Chris, thanks so much for joining us.

CHRIS JACOBS: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: And for more on the politics of this, we called Gayle Trotter. She's a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum. That's a conservative think tank here in Washington. She's here in our studios. Gayle, thank you so much for joining us once again.

GAYLE TROTTER: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And I'm going to start with you. Do you agree with the strategy? We are told that there is some disagreement among House Republicans on this. Do you think that they're doing the right thing?

TROTTER: Yes, absolutely. Every Republican in the House of Representatives right now ran on either delaying, opposing or defunding Obamacare. And this is the point where Republicans need to show whether or not they're going to follow through on their commitments. This is democracy in action, and if you don't like where we are now with the government slowdown, most Americans didn't like where we were when Obamacare was passed in the first place.

MARTIN: Chris, what about you? Why is it that - why is it worth shutting the government down over this policy? And I think people are particularly interested in hearing from you because I think some people will remember that the Heritage Foundation at one time did embrace the individual mandate that everybody buy some health insurance or face some sort of a penalty or tax. And the Heritage Foundation was one of the proponents of this and has apparently, as an institution, changed its mind about this rather vociferously.

JACOBS: Sure. Well, for one thing, Michel, the Heritage Foundation has been clear from the opening phases of this debate in 2009 that we oppose Obamacare in all its various forms as it was going through the legislative process in the House and the Senate. We understand that a government slowdown is inconvenient, and it's actually very painful to federal - furloughed federal workers. And we wish the Congress would act to open the rest of the federal government except for Obamacare.

We're worried about the impact of Obamacare on our nation's future, the trillions of dollars in new spending that will begin to flow out on January 1. We're worried about the impact on the economy, all of the businesses that have been lowering hours for part-time workers, have been laying off workers, have been dropping health insurance coverage. There's significant adverse effects going on throughout the economy, and we're also worried about the impact on our nation's healthcare system overall, whether the quality of care will deteriorate under this new legislation.

MARTIN: Do you feel that, as an institution - speaking more about the substance than the politics, as we called Gayle for that - that you feel that the risk to the economy is worth the current price that is being paid by this government shutdown?

JACOBS: It is unfortunately. Obamacare, we think, is the greater threat. We wish that...

MARTIN: Because why? Tell us why.

JACOBS: Because of the economic impact. We have massive debt and deficits already in the future. We've run trillion-dollar deficits the past four years in a row, and Obamacare will add 1.8 trillion dollars in new spending in its first 10 years. There are various budget gimmicks throughout the law. We don't think it's ultimately paid for, and when we have a fiscal crisis already, the first rule is always stop digging when you're in a hole. And that's unfortunately the - what Obamacare does. It digs the fiscal hole for our country deeper.

MARTIN: Gayle, let's - again, we called you for the politics of this. Why is this the best strategy to defund, derail or delay the Affordable Care Act? Some - you've argued that this is the kind of the Democratic way. Some people argue this is in fact the opposite. By way of example, a majority of the House Democrats opposed the Iraq war - maybe people may forget that - but they didn't insist on shutting the government down to advance their argument. They let the bill go forward and it was a matter of conscience.

TROTTER: Well, we've had 17 government shutdowns over the last couple decades, so this is not a new strategy. And this strategy is really important 'cause it's given us a national debate over whether this particular law will help or hurt us. And the truth is that Obamacare is hurting people, so stopping it or delaying it is a necessity. Americans are losing jobs. Americans are having their hours cut. Americans are losing the healthcare that they already have, and Americans are not getting the benefit of the lower premiums that Obama said that his law would promote. So...

MARTIN: You know, the polls indicate that, yes, it is true that the Affordable Care Act remains unpopular with some segments of the population, but the government shutdown is more unpopular.


MARTIN: That more people - the majority of the public who is being surveyed does not agree with you on this. And I wonder if that gives you pause at all?

TROTTER: Well, they're both because the American people have spoke resoundingly that they don't want Obamacare. And they've also spoke resoundingly that they don't want this government slowdown. So the American people through the Republicans would get what they want. They would have no government slowdown and they would have Obamacare delayed for a year or repealed. But the Democratic strategy is to give Americans not what they want, to have the government slowdown and to have Obamacare. So the Republican strategy is dead on.

MARTIN: I have to ask you, though, Gayle, that the same American citizens elected this president twice, and they also elected the Democrats in the House and the Democrats in the Senate. Now it's true that the Democrats have the majority in the Senate. They are a minority in the House, but a bare minority in the House. And so people look at that and say, you know, how can you say that this is a referendum. The Democrats are arguing that this - that you're really trying to overturn the results of the election, that the president stood on this. You're saying every Republican in the House ran on this, but so did every Democrat in the Senate, and the president who was reelected. And there's no doubt about that. So how do you respond to that?

TROTTER: We don't have a one-party system. We have a constitutional system, separation of powers. The House of Representatives is the people's body. It is the House that is most susceptible to political opinions of the people. It has the fastest turnover. It's closest to the people's electoral votes. And when you look at that, that's exactly how the Constitution wants our system to work. And with this strategy, the Republicans are using the only leverage that they have. This is must-pass legislation, and if we don't stop Obamacare now, it will continue to hurt people, and it will become entrenched, like so many other programs have that hurt Americans. So if Republicans can't stand up now, they are committing malpractice to their voters who put them in there in the first place.

MARTIN: But why would the Democrats argue the same thing?

TROTTER: Democrats are arguing right now - they don't want to argue the data. They don't want to go into the data of how it's hurting the economy and how it's hurting the American worker. They're talking about a procedural issue. And it is a clear sign that when the other side points to procedural issues, they're not wanting to engage on the data and the facts.

MARTIN: Chris Jacobs, about the data and the facts, as you have both been discussing here, the Heritage Foundation has said time and time again on its website and its position papers, that the issue here is not the shutdown, it's the Affordable Care Act. And you've also argued that the Affordable Care Act, as you've just said, is harmful to the economy. Do you not consider this current situation harmful to the economy? And I'm particularly interested in people who receive direct government services - people who cannot receive - who cannot apply, say, for veterans' benefits and things of that sort? Do you feel that those are not, in fact, harmful effects or - and forgive me, I have to ask - or is it that those harmful effects don't affect the people who you consider a core constituency of yours?

JACOBS: No, it's more the fact that Obamacare - the harm that Obamacare will cause on the economy, over time, greatly exceeds the temporary harm that - and it is harmful. It is inconvenient. We recognize that. Hundreds of thousands of federal workers are on furlough. There are many services, government services, are operating, but some aren't, and that causes economic damage. But we think the far greater harm over the long term to our country is the economic harm, the loss of jobs, the reduction in hours caused from Obamacare, as well as the trillions of dollars in new federal spending.

MARTIN: Gayle, I have to ask the same question of you. Is it that you feel that these are not harmful effects, or is it that you feel that the harmful effects of the government shutdown - and I do take note that we're using different language. I'm calling it a shutdown, you and Chris generally calling it a slowdown or a slim-down. So I do want to take note that we are having a semantic difference here. I'm not trying to persuade you in either direction, just, you know, pointing it out. Is it that you feel that these harmful effects don't fall on people who are a particularly strong part of the Republican constituency, and therefore, it is not as important?

TROTTER: No, they definitely fall on the Republicans' constituency. And Obamacare - the opposition to it is a nonpartisan issue. You had James Hoffa, who's the leader of the Teamsters, opposing it 'cause he said it was going to kill the 40-hour work week. So Republicans are responding to their constituency, but they're also looking at the importance for the country as a whole. And when you look at all this, this can stop today. President Obama and the Democrats in the Senate can stop this today. The House Republicans continue to pass bills, funding all of government, piece by piece - simple, focused bills. Providing funding for different places - parts of the government. So it can stop today. This harm can stop.

MARTIN: About 20 Republicans in the House said that they are ready to approve a clean continuing resolution. That's a bill that would fund the government at current spending levels for the next six weeks or so. It wouldn't include any provision about the Affordable Care Act. What's your message to them?

TROTTER: That's a missed opportunity because this is the chance before we have full implementation of Obamacare. We've already seen the effects of this law - negative effects on working Americans, on people who are trying to have jobs, support their families. This is a last good chance to stop this before full implementation. So House Republicans should stand firm and follow the lead of those who are responding to what the American people want.

MARTIN: Chris, do you see an end game here? What do you think it is?

JACOBS: Hopefully, the House of Representatives has passed legislation to keep various parts - to reopen various parts of the federal government, and, unfortunately, it appears that the Senate and President Obama want to block that legislation. I think the solution is, as Gayle was saying, for members of Congress to listen to the American people and recognize the harmful effects of Obamacare on the country and act accordingly.

MARTIN: Chris Jacobs is a senior policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation. That's a conservative research and advocacy group - research organization, research and policy group. Gayle Trotter's a senior fellow for the Independent Women's Forum. That's a conservative think tank and advocacy group. They are both here in Washington, D.C. Gayle is in our studios with us. Chris Jacobs is in the studios at Heritage. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

TROTTER: Thank you.

JACOBS: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.